Tamuna Kintsurashvili and her team huddle over Apple Macbooks in a nondescript apartment-turned-office, situated in a thicket of residential buildings in Tbilisi, Georgia. A large poster in the conference room advises “Accountability.” Coffee is in ample supply, and so is work.
Kintsurashvili and her staffers monitor Georgian media for fake news, carefully tracking the messages and their makers. They trace the provenance of questionable news items and connect the dots among stories that first appear in Russian and, later, in sympathetic or just gullible Georgian media, and also inspect backgrounds of individuals involved in this information flow. They publish a newsletter, the Mythdetector, rounding up the top running media fabrications about the Western world and Georgia’s ties to it.
“We have many purveyors of Russian propaganda: journalists, politicians and ecclesiastic authorities. And it comes from everywhere: TV and social media,” said Kintsurashvili, executive director of the Media Development Foundation (MDF).
MDF portrays itself as the only group in Georgia that regularly monitors Russian media reports and measures their impact. MDF representatives are also a part of an informal coalition of Georgian liberal groups and intellectuals, who are embracing the challenge of trying to counter Russian anti-Western disinformation campaigns.
MDF gets most of its funding from United States and European governments and NGOs, as do many of its partners. Others in the coalition volunteer their efforts, driven by a belief that Russian media manipulation poses a risk to their country’s democratic, pro-Western future.
Coalition members spend a lot of their time debunking misleading reports about the supposed spread of immorality in the EU and the United States. Such reports include that of an Italian man who purportedly had intercourse with a pet alligator, as well as one alleging that in the United Kingdom it is perfectly normal to make apparel from human skin.
On close inspection, these reports appear to be making their way to Georgia from Russia, or, occasionally, from dubious foreign outlets elsewhere, MDF representatives say.
Many questionable reports are connected in some way to “hot-button” issues in Georgia, in particular the erosion of national culture. “Their [Russian propaganda] messaging is largely about impressing upon the [Georgian] audiences that the West is perverted and decadent, having values that are incompatible with those of traditional societies, like ours,” said Tamuna Karosanidze, chief of party of the East West Management’s ACCESS project, a group that sponsors the efforts to track and counter Russian disinformation.
Questionable reports also strive to stoke anxiety about economic issues. “Europe is being portrayed as a distant and impenetrable market, while Russia is right here and is an eager consumer of our agricultural produce,” Karosanidze said.
Through trainings, reports and media appearances, MDF tries to popularize methods and tools that can help check the authenticity of media reports. The group additionally seeks to encourage more Georgians to engage in do-it-yourself busting of fake news.
On occasion, the MDF-led coalition’s verification efforts have forced media outlets to run corrections to their original stories. But on other occasions, the targets of MDF criticism, such as the tabloid Asavali-Dasavali – which falsely reported last summer that NATO had adopted new uniforms for transgender people – have responded with virulent rhetorical counterattacks.
Progressive-minded activists in Georgia are concerned by what they see as an upsurge in nationalism and social conservativism. They also worry that some erosion of public support in Georgia for Western integration offers evidence that Russia’s information campaign is effective.
A considerable majority of Georgians remains enthusiastic about joining the EU, NATO and other Western institutions, but there are also strong existential worries that embracing the multiculturalism and diversity which come with ties to the West could end up eroding some of the distinctive qualities of Georgian culture.
Karosanidze acknowledged that, for the foreseeable future, the Georgian mythbuster initiative, given the abundance of resources that Russia devotes to its information campaign, will be playing catch-up when it comes to chasing down fake news reports. But the disadvantages are not daunting, she insisted, adding that “someone has to do it.”
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance journalist and a frequent contributor to EurasiaNet.org's Tamada Tales blog.